A leading film critic teaches us how to watch the movies
“Talking Pictures: How To Watch Movies” by Ann Hornaday; Basic Books (320 pages, $26) Everyone’s a critic today.
Credit (or blame) Twitter, Facebook, the democracy of the web and sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which allow moviegoers to weigh in, just as the professionals do. If you’re looking for a crash course in how to watch movies and move beyond “It was terrible (or terrific),” look no further than “Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies” by Ann Hornaday, chief film critic for The Washington Post.
In 2009, she embarked on a series of articles intended to help readers analyze and evaluate films in the same way she does. “Returning to my roots as a reporter, I interviewed directors, screenwriters, producers, actors, sound technicians, cinematographers and editors about their crafts and about what they wished audiences appreciated more about their work,” she recounts in the introduction.
That inspired her to write “Talking Pictures,” which gives readers an idea of what makes a movie soar or sink and why you might like a film but not love it. The book is divided logically into chapters devoted to screenplay, acting, production design, cinematography, editing, sound and music, directing and “Was it worth doing?” and she cites excellent examples along with insightful quotes from A-listers.
Each section ends with a list of a half-dozen recommended films. The one on acting, for instance, suggests watching Maria Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc”; Marlon Brando, “On the Waterfront”; Robert De Niro, “Taxi Driver”; Meryl Streep, “Sophie’s Choice”; Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”; and Viola Davis, “Fences.”
Hornaday, who studied government at Smith College and worked for Ms. Magazine as a researcher and as Gloria Steinem’s administrative assistant, learned her craft on the job. She wrote for Premiere magazine and was a freelancer for The New York Times before becoming movie critic at newspapers in Austin, Texas; Baltimore and D.C.
In her nearly 300-page guide, she addresses how quickly a good movie should engage the audience and earn its allegiance—see “The Godfather”— along with why some villains are way too obvious, as with Billy Zane’s character in “Titanic,” and others creatively complex.
“Karen Crowder, Tilda Swinton’s ambitious corporate executive in 2007’s ‘Michael Clayton,’ was anything but a standard-issue baddie.”
Director-writer Tony Gilroy imbued her with “ever more complex layers of self-doubt and quivering desperation, rather than the brittle, shark-like amorality we’ve come to expect from similar big-business villains.” He harbors some sympathy for even his most loathsome characters, she observes.
I was thinking of her chapter on sound and music while watching “Dunkirk,” a movie destined for some Oscar love. “The best score watches the movie with the viewers, not for them; it’s baked into the film, rather than being slathered on top like too much sugar icing.” That is a perfect way to describe the Hans Zimmer score for Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece.
She tries to pinpoint why the three “Star Wars” prequels paled in comparison to their predecessors—flabby, overbusy second acts—and acknowledges that acting “might be the most deceptively difficult aspect of filmmaking, because its best practitioners make it look very easy.” She singles out a Brad Pitt scene in “Babel” and one with Robin Wright in “Nine Lives” for examples of wrenching, well-executed emotion.
No such praise comes for Adam Sandler, raunch-com regular Rose Byrne, the “Lord of the Rings” films or 3-D, unless it’s employed in “Hugo,” “Gravity” or “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”
And while the author acknowledges she would rather lay asphalt on a 100-degree day than attend ComicCon, “in the hands of Joss Whedon, Kenneth Branagh, and the brother team of Anthony and Joe Russo, the recent Marvel Comics ‘Avengers’ movies have become showcases for smart writing, nuanced acting, and timely allegory, even in the midst of cartoonish action.”
Documentaries and fact-based dramas, which could merit a separate book, get short shrift and I disagree with her brief assessment of Rob Marshall’s musicals as “clumsily filmed (and) overedited.”
But Hornaday expertly shares why some films seem magnificent or mediocre, why details matter (a horse’s heartbeat in “Secretariat,” the electrifying walk through the Copacabana in “GoodFellas,” the workaday routine opening “United 93”) and why directors with “chops” can seize the day and magical movie moment.